Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Living in a place where you are not happy can make you old!

When I was a kid, we were the first family to move into the street of a new suburb. Other houses sprung up around us. So, by the time the street filled up, we knew all the families. It is a reassuring thing. When any festival happened, every family would send out a plate of special goodies to the others in the streets. We did not party together. But I guess we were  a community. And a good one at that.

As a college kid, when I came home late -- and in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, night falls early, it would not be so scary to walk down a badly lit street, because you had the sense you could run into any home for help. Subsequently, the suburb has changed. Small houses have been replaced by highrises. The roads are more well-lit. But I have not gone back since I left it, because I fear I may not feel as safe as I did when I was a kid.

Here is what the famous biologist Elizabeth Blackburn says about how neighbourhoods can affect us.
"Communities where people do not trust one another, and where they fear violence, are damaging to *telomere heath. But neighbourhoods that feel safe and look beautiful -- with leafy trees and green parks -- are related to longer telomeres, no matter what the income and education level of their residents."
(*Telomeres are ends of chromosomes. They begin to shrink,  aging the rest of us and our bodies, from inside)

More exciting thoughts on how your neighbourhood can accelerate your aging: 
* Being stuck in a neghbourhood from which you want to move but cannot afford to

*Living in spaces where the crime rate is high 

*Disorderly neighbourhoods 

* Unsafe neighbourhoods 

* Neighbourhoods without social cohesion 

* Without green spaces 

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Fast route towards youthfulness

The new buzz word is autophagy. It sort of means your cells eat themselves -- a sort of cannibalistic behavior of the cells post exercise or fasting, that actually benefits the organism as a whole.

In exercise, the cells are damaged. And this release an activity called autophagy, which is set off to clear up cell debris, and this in turn helps rejuvenate the cells. Interestingly fasting appears to have a similar regenerative impact on the brain. 

And it is not just cell regeneration but also helps heal or control --  cancer, neurodegeneration, cardiomyopathy, diabetes, liver disease, autoimmune diseases and infections (according to a study).

Just how much is too much, in terms of exercise? Or how do you modulate your fasting?  I find these concerns are pretty well-managed by alternative therapies. As far as yoga is concerned, as a daily practitioner I can vouch for the fact that nothing is too much, and your body progressively gets used to more demand on it. It responds by having less hunger. Unlike after a gym round, after a yoga session your hunger actually gets depressed. It is an interesting phenomenon. Automatically induces less eating, thereby inviting a natural fasting that helps the mind stay fresh too. 

Friday, July 28, 2017

Practical meditation techniques to prevent cellular aging

No research on aging is complete without some amount of fund and fuss spent on meditation and its values. It is intriguing just how many very clinical tests have taken this spiritual and psychic aspect to see if it has any impact on your body. And for a large part, there has been a resounding,"Yes." 

For some reason, and I would think simply because they are more organised that way, most meditators subjected to scrutiny have been Tibetan monks. 

So, this very intense book on this form of meditation, The Tibetan book of the Dead, translated by Robert A.F. Thurman, has simple tips on how to go about meditation.

There is a lot of resistance to meditation, including from those who do related activity like yoga. And even those who meditate have different ideas or conclusions about it. And in fact, most people who meditate love nothing better than share the intense experiences they have while meditating. 

I myself am very embarrassed to discuss my meditation practice with anybody, simply because it is very intimate and often not conclusive. It will always be a work in progress. 

So, I was rather enchanted by this para in this book: 
"Another kind of daily-activity meditation is the conscious association of an ordinary activity with a spiritual practice. When you wash dishes, associate their cleansing with clearing away mental addictions, making their washing into a prayer. When you build a building, associate it with building a pure land mandala. When you observe a person in the subway, associate the encounter with  being there for him, when you are a Buddha. When you open a door, associate it with opening the door to enlightenment." 

I think most of us have demarcated the humdrum from the sublime. And we want to finish with the boring, to rush to the exciting. The suggestion above however is for making the humdrum sublime. And there may be something huge there.  

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Herbs to preserve youthfulness

My favorite ayurvedic master is Dr David Frawley. And I swear by him, for a lot of healing with food.

I like his take on the Vanaprastha and Sannyasa stages of life. (Vanaprastha from 50 to 75 years) and Sannyasa from (75 to 100 years).

In this book Ayurvedic Healing, he says the last stages of our life determines our next birth, and so it is very important part of our whole lives! Interesting thought.

The dominant element during this stage is vata. And imagine for a high vata person like me, how much more discomfiting!  I have to practically deal with a double whammy.

Vata is most soothed by oils.

Massages, massages, massages.

Lots of medicated ghee. Mmm, I like ghee. Overall lubrication, soothing the vata element.

Chyavan Prash : youthfulness and rejuvenation.  This is easily available.

Brahmarasayana (for memory).

Gotu kola -- to improve hearing.

Ashwagandha -- for rejuvenation.

Guggul: For arthritic joints

Shatavari - for women's health issues

With all these easily available, it is a sin not to take care of your health. However, you need to consult an expert as to which of the above you need.

I love this paragraph: "In India, the later years are considered to be the appropriate season of life for spiritual growth, the time when worldly obligations to work and family are completed and when the soul naturally begins to long for the transcendent. The body matures around the age of 21 but the mind does not mature until the age of 30. The soul, however, does not mature until the age of fifty, when the higher aspect of our lives truly begins. For this reason, the time after the age of fifty is the most important for spiritual growth."

Yes, yes. I agree with that totally!

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

4 yoga practices for daily youthfulness

Ayurveda is married to yoga intrinsically. And of all the alternative medicines, I believe in ayurveda the most. Some ayurvedic masters straddle the wisdom of both sciences by seeing the idea of elements in these practices.

While scanning this book Ayurveda and Panchakarma, by Dr Sunil Joshi, I found this reference to yoga, which as an intstructor, caught my eye.

He recommends sun salute and pranayama. But amongst all the asanas and kriyas , he recommends these four the most:

*Locust / Salabhasana
*  Energy-release pose /dwipada supta pawanmuktasana
* Cobra/ Bhujangasna
* Uddiyana bandha

If you are a yoga instructor, you will find the connecting link in all these practices? Your gut, your belly, your digestion. Your second brain.

Dr Joshi observes that"Charaka has mentioned that to use yoga along with panchakarmas therapy eliminates disease."

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Feelings that age you

I feel therefore I am. Nobody said that. But everybody lives that!

So, feelings come with a strong sense of rightfulness. If you feel it, it must be right. The interesting thing, for meditators, is that they realise that there are so many feelings all tangled up, that there is never an absolute truth about this thing.

The more you meditate the more clarity comes through, that what you feel is not necessarily the right thing. This may take a while to get through, when things crush your heart. But if you are a true meditator you know this "Aha" moment also comes through. It is perhaps as close as you can get to mokhsha, that everybody talks in abstruse terms.

Elizabeth Blackburn, biologist, who apparently got funding rejected from a government agency because it clashed with orthodox religious beliefs (yes, they belong to all hues:) is into studying longevity.

And this absolutely riveting book she has written, called the Telomere Project opens your eyes to the idea of how and why we age, and what we may do to delay it.

She lists a few patterns of thinking that actually have been shown to accelerate aging in your mind. If you see the list, u will feel, as I do, that somewhere sometime we have all succumbed to this because we have been told that our feelings are guideposts. Or that because you feel so strongly about something, you have to coast along, and suffer it.

Here is her list, in a nutshell (and you must read her book, written for the layperson) to find out how to stop it. Very practical book:

* Thought suppression
* Rumination (loopy thinking)
* Negative thinking
* Cynical hostility
* Pessimism

What are the physical symptoms of all this, which causes cell aging?

* higher stress hormones
* exhaustion of the systems dealing with stress
* faster progress of disease
* Digestive system collapse

Monday, July 24, 2017

Vajrasana: best bet for soothing your belly

The gut is like a baby. A neglected baby. Or overindulged one. Either way, it suffers a lot I would guess.

So, amongst the multiple books I tend to read at the same time -- and somehow they take me right back to yoga - I am reading this one called Gut, by Giulia Enders. Everybody must read this book to ensure you are not tripped by this "second brain" inside of you.

She talks of the gut like a living entity. Which it is. It was the original animal around which you were created, your brain included. And that never fails to marvel me. Because even the smartest person, is tripped by the gut, because it is the older of the two.

So, Enders says the gut has a very "gargly" appearance, created out of evolutionary wisdom. And for me. this fact links up to yoga with this pose Vajrasana, which is used as a cure-all for all gut related problems. And it is the only other  asana recommended (and supta vajrasana /lying thunderbolt is another one) after a meal.

Here is what Enders says about your gut:
The "gargly" appearance of the oesophagus is also more beautiful than it seems at first glance. Looking very closely, it can be seen that some muscle fibers run around the oesophagus in a spiral pattern. They are the reason for its "gargly" motion.If you extend these fibers lengthways, they constrict spirally like telephone receiver cable. Bundles of fibres connect the oesophagus to the spinal column. Sitting up straight and looking upward stretches the oesophagus along its length. This causes it to narrow in turn allowing it to close more efficiently at each end. That is why sitting or standing up straight can help prevent heartburn after a large meal."

Wow, like I always wonder our yogis knew of these hundreds of 

Saturday, June 10, 2017

It is possible to boost your immunity

The immune gland thymus is strongest and largest in a child. By puberty it begins to atrophy. Even before this natural degeneration, most of humanity is beset with  common major immune disorders include auto-immune diseases where theimmune system in a state of hyper vigilance attacks the body it is meant to protect; immune deficiency where the system fails to protect the body under emergency.

Interestingly, recent research has found the immune gland may be revived and stimulated back to health. Yoga has been doing it for eons through its asanas(poses)  and pranayama (breathing practices). Though the precise mechanism may be difficult to explain, most poses or practices that stimulate the chest region have found to help control disorders related to this highly sensitive system in our body. It could be that these poses stimulate the acupressure points that stimulate the gland. Research on meditation was the first to prove that focusing practices can boost the production of immune cells within the body.

The chest opening poses like the dhanurasana (bow),bhugangasana (cobra), salabhasana (locust), sarpasana (snake pose) are some simple yogic  immunity boosters. Pranayama practices like kapalabhati (skull-cleanser), bhastrika (bellows breathing) are also powerful immunity boosters.   Shameem Akthar, yogacharya trained with the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Center,  shows you five yogic practices to protect you from infections.

Dhanurasana (Bow pose, Advanced version): Lie on your stomach. Bend legs at the knees. Cross ankles. Reach hands behind to grasp either of the crossed ankles, as shown. Inhale, lifting chest and thighs off the ground. Look up, the intensify the stretch. Hold for a few seconds initially, with normal breathing. After regular practice over weeks, you may extend the duration in the final pose. Or, you may hold for a shorter duration, three times.

Benefits: Boost immunity, and overall health since it is also a complete body workout. Tones hands and legs. Boosts stamina.

Marjariasana (Cat stretch, advanced): Kneel on your fours, as shown. Inhale to lift the left leg up, as shown, with it bent at the knee. Reach right hand to hold the left ankle (or foot or toes, as shown). Lift the leg higher, drawing the ankle away. Lift the head up, to look at the ceiling. Hold for as long as is comfortable, breathing normally throughout. Release leg. Repeat for the other side.

Points to note: This calls for ability to balance. So attempt it only after trying other advanced cat stretches. Do  not lift the head until balance has been achieved.

Benefits: Boosts immunity, stamina, limbs’ tone.

Friday, June 09, 2017

Groups of poses which aid immunity

In yoga, the practice specifically designed to boost immunity include most of the back-bends, and chest-openers. There are both simple and advanced versions of these. I have found, as an instructor, that those who have a weak immune system usually experience a mild sense of fainting when doing these chest-openers. This is rather common and not a cause for alarm. In such a case, it would be advisable to phase your practice, so that the body is slowly made accustomed to this new element. In a few weeks, this fainting sensation would go. If it persists, you need to have a thorough check-up, to establish cause and find out if you have vertigo, inner ear infection, low blood pressure or cervical spondylosis. 

Another way to ease this is by using props like cushions, chair support and bolsters. This also takes some pressure off the body. The immune boosting poses work by rejuvenating the thymus, at the chest, and boosting lung capacity, thus aiding circulation. The lymphatic drainage is also facilitated, aiding faster disposal of waste. Chest-openers in yoga include the classic matsyasana (fish pose), supta vajrasana (lying thunderbolt), ushtrasana (camel), ardha chandrasana (crescent pose), bhujangasana (cobra) and all its variations.

An interesting reason why yoga works is also because bones become denser due to the resistance training that the anti-gravity poses provide. Dense bones means more production of white blood cells, needed to fight invasive infections. However, to achieve this end, you must move into the intermediate range of poses, such as the bow (dhanu), sarvangasana (shoulder-stand), santolanasana (balance pose), parvatasana (mountain), urdhava mukha svananasana (upward facing dog). 

Sage saying:
"Yogic science explains hypersensitive reactions as the arousal of a previously developed mental samskara or impression, which has left a deep-set memory and imprint in both our psyche and cellular memory (surveillance system). The person who suddenly starts sneezing either in a tense  psychological situation or when exposed to house dust is manifesting essentially the same reaction. It is the physiological immune response to a subconscious mental impression surfacing": Dr Swami Karmananda in the book Yogic Management of Common Diseases, published by the Bihar School of Yoga.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Boost your immunity with yoga

Despite stacks of scientific evidence, some people are skeptical of the exact manner in which yoga boosts immunity. How can doing yoga daily for 30-mintues help strengthen the body? This doubt trips the intentions of most people from continuing with a sustained practice. Though the interest in yoga has been revived in India, its practice as a sustained health regimen is still not so common.

Below are details of current scientific evidence to prove that yoga does boost immunity.
Not just the physical practices, but    also mindfulness meditation was found to increase the left-sided anterior activity in the brain, positively hiking the body's immune system. This, after just eight weeks  of practice.    A  30-minute daily practice of pranayama  or breathing practices over a 10-week period can positively impact lung function, even relieving bronchial asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Meditation was found to increase activity in the left-side of the brain, affecting optimism. This in turn caused a significant increase in disease-fighting anti-bodies in the blood. Interestingly, those who meditated had more than those who just did yogic poses. Slow movements and meditation together  can help prevent shingles and herpes virus incidence in the elderly, who were more prone to these due to sociological conditions that increased their depression.

Controlled breathing, slow yogic practices and meditation when practiced together helped reduce the cortisol levels in the blood.  Cortisol is a known stress hormone. It is implicated in most diseases, including degenerative ones like BP, diabetes, and other ailments involving the arterial system, such as stroke, heart attacks, palpitations  etc. Patients who practiced visual imagery and meditation recovered faster post-surgery. During exams, the students who practiced some form of meditative technique had higher antibodies in their blood, thus being protected from stress-weakened immune system. Depression, which caused aging, was brought under control by yoga.

Any sustained yoga practice is sufficient to boost immunity. Usually the result is near miraculous, occurring within six weeks of regular practice. Even a thrice-weekly practice has great results. But those with extremely weak immune system may need a more focused and planned yogic therapy. This could include a dietary overhaul, with more anti-oxidant rich fruits, vegetables and nuts. Another important factor could mean cutting down of artificial flavoring agents in baked goods, bottled drinks and packaged food; avoiding artificial colors in canned stuff, or processed food. A conscious choice of right
fats that could mean including rice-bran oil. Choosing unrefined oil over the nutrient-weak refined oil also may help. Other key nutrients needed to boost immunity include zinc, vitamin Bs (there is a whole range of them), vitamin C and vitamin D.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

To prop or not?

There is a lot of debate on use of props. Some purists feel yoga with props reduces the value of yoga, while others believe it assists those unable to execute a pose properly. Are props only for sick people? May it also be used by healthy beginners to reach deeper into a pose? Can an advanced practitioner further one's practice with props?

When  the Indian government roped in experts to draw a list of yoga practices that were getting swamped by patenting, they thumbed down props as unyogic since these do not find a mention in ancient treatises. So the confusion over props only got more compounded.

But schools based in classical yoga also use props. A good example would be the Iyengar school which uses ropes, chairs, wooden bricks, bolsters and cushions to reach a beginner or a very stiff person into a pose.  It must also be remembered in olden times, warriors expanded their yogic practice with use of rope, cane, wooden rods and poles creating the exotic and powerful branch of yoga called mallakhamb which is gaining great popularity even abroad today.

So the use of props are not entirely a new feature of yoga.  Once when  two wrestlers from the Nizam of Hyderabad's court challenged a Deccan Peshwa's warriors to a bout, an -18-year-old named Balambhattdada Deodhar offered to fight them.  He retreated to a village to prepare for the bout. It is said Lord Hanuman himself trained young Deodhar, using a tree as an equipment, teaching him to practise gusti (wrestling) on a pole, as with a partner. Mallakhamb is tracked back to this incident. Deodhar returned to shame the Nizam's team, restoring the challenged honor of his Peshwa who promptly hired him as his personal coach.  So, use of props does have historical and mythical links.

Students do feel reassured by props and are willing to experiment with difficult poses.  Here it is crucial to remember that most injuries happen when the muscles, at the fear of falling, contract and become taut instead of retaining their supple bounciness. Often a student, even when trying something mild or simple, will be in a state of muscular tension that will erupt later, while relaxing, as pain. All these initial hiccups are avoided with props.

Of course, there are some cumbersome props that become addictions, like padmasana (lotus pose) stools. I know people who carry these cumbersome props with them even while traveling, using them to hold up the knees while sitting cross-legged!   As a beginner you will find it difficult to make a choice between  a necessary prop and an unnecessary one, the latter often recommended by  commercial schools. But basically, most props should be just good-old household items, like foot stools which can be used to expand your plough (halasana), the bolster to enhance deep breathing in a fish pose (matyasana) or a wall, to prop up a hand stand or a headstand. Anything beyond these are usually avoidable. Similarly, the very obese or very old may use a wall to grow in their shoulderstand ( sarvangasana). Wrist strength cannot be taken for granted. Some poses exert a lot of pressure on the wrists. It is ideal,in such cases, to strengthen the wrists by using props for some months and then dispensing them once confidence and strength is built up.

If you are advanced practitioner you may wish to invest in a gym ball, to challenge your balances in commonplace poses like boat (navkasana), bridge (setu), cat (marjari). Pilates, an innovation of yoga, uses belts. These are okay for a beginner, but unnecessary for an advanced practitioner. The latter have inner, muscular strength to withstand the drag of gravity which is tough on beginners.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Gym ball and yoga

Those who find yoga tedious can spice up their practice by using the tricky gym ball. This multiplies the benefits of two different exercises. Each complements and enhances the other.

Nowadays everybody is convinced yoga works. But some may raise their eyebrows at the gym ball. It works on the simple principal of the survival reflex, the same trick that makes yoga's balancing poses such superb work-outs. And this is how survival reflex works: when we try to maintain our balance, the large, subtle muscle mass called faschia gets a real work-out.   Most other exercise forms neglect this expanse of muscle fibers. Only when we struggle to maintain a balance in a well-designed  pose do we really challenge these muscle fibers.   Muscles called stablizers are also prodded into action, boosting our stamina to amazing levels. When the stabilizers get sculpted in this fashion, the core muscles are finally allowed to reach their full potential. If all this sounds too much like a biology lesson, let's make this simple: you can really shape up fast if you combine your yoga sadhana with a gym ball. Imagine if just simply sitting on the ball can trim fat, how much more toned you can get executing a yoga pose on it? Interestingly, some difficult yoga poses are more easily learnt when you use the ball as a prop.

Some tips:
  • If you are new-comer to either of these physical regimens, it is best to practice them individually before combining them.
  • If you have never used a ball before, start off by supporting it against something solid (like wall/chair) so your body gets used to its shifting movement. Or ask a partner to hold it or help you get into the pose.
  • Usually, the ball is selected according to your height. But for starters, smaller balls are less intimidating.
 Setu bandha asana (Bridge lock pose)

Lie on your back, feet propped on the ball. Place hands under waist, to support. Inhale, lifting up hips, pushing feet firmly against the ball. Hips must rise as high as possible, body weight supported entirely on hands. Hold the pose, breathing normally. Exhaling, relax back. Do three times. Over the next few weeks, increase duration in the final pose, holding it longer.

Benefits: Shapes the hips, back of thighs. Provides strength training for wrists, arms. Boosts respiration by expanding chest.   The pressure at throat helps regulate thyroid imbalances. Relieves all backaches, especially lower back.

Monday, June 05, 2017

What type of mat is best for me

When I started learning yoga I used the dhurrie -- the carpet we use in India -- because I could not afford a yoga mat. Plus, I had never seen a sticky mat before and was very intrigued such a thing existed. I used the Rs 100-dhurrie throughout my teacher training. Thpse days the ashram where I got my TTC sold such mats for us poor Indians. This was a cheaper dhurrie variety -- the footmat sort of weave -- would fold up in several poses. But I never felt at a disadvantage using it, ever. For me the mat was just something to keep dust off me, and was any case easier to wash than the plasticky sticky mat. So I guess I fitted the idea of austerity and abstinence required of us yoga practitioners!

But nowadays I have many varieties of mat because I have become indulgent (which shows how much truer we are to the principles of anything as beginners and lose it along the way ha ha:). So after the motorbike (that everybody who follows me is aware of)   accident with every joint having been thoroughly socked (including an old injury at the knee, just when I thought I had sorted it) I decided to buy a softer, foamy thick mat. I have been using it for the last few months and realised that it is actually aggravating the stress at my joints-- every joint has become more sensitive due to it -- my wrists, my knees, my shoulders especially. So I dug out my older and worn out mat and feel better already. And though it is mud-stained from a yoga practice in the park, I prefer it these days.

So here is a lowdown on how to choose your mat:

The non-fussy medium range non-sticky mat is the best. The more expensive foam or thick mat is good only for those doing therapy poses. It is gentle on the knees when you land on it or keep it there for poses like the cat stretch. But for the intermediate level practice which may include sun salute you do not want this mat. While it softens the cushioning at the knees, it also destablises it in lunges etc making it more painful later on. You will find that even planks, long holds in poses like the headstand, stresses all the joints in these softer mats because they are so soft and aggravate any joint problem you may already have.
Similarly standing poses are tougher on these thicker mats -- which may add up to improving your poses by over-challenging them. But in  a class if you are already shaky, it is going to wobble you more.

I have used the expensive mats which have jute base at the bottom -- it will slide madly on a slippery floor but is otherwise good and strong. The thicker mats sold by all brands -- they shred faster, because the brands realise that if  you can afford to buy the more expensive variety you are also rich enough to dump it soon:)

Happy sadhana!

Friday, May 26, 2017

Tantric yoga: misunderstood

(Most of the Siddha yogi books are badly translated. but this edition I have depicted above is one of the best translated texts, with elegant English that conveys the difficult topic it translates) 

Tantric yoga is misunderstood. It is a hugely spiritual sadhana which uses the unusual path of sublimating the spirit and soul through the body. It starts off with the basic premise that you use this practice for intense self-control, then direct that controlled energy upwards, towards a higher goal.

Some of the most wonderful books on this subject are Tirumandiram, a Tamil text by Siddha yogis which lists practices and discusses the spiritual upliftment that comes from controlling or redirecting the sexual energy.

One of the benefits/offshoots  of this sort of yogic control is vitality, vigor, and superior control, including at the uro-genital system. This is why perhaps there is the belief that it is used only for sexual purposes, that would be to undermine the relevance of a spiritual practice.

Any of the yogic practices may be used, as a sequence, to improve fertility, depending on the body type and capacity of the practitioner.

Bandhas play a major role in this, and must be introduced by and by. The vajroli mudra and ashwini mudra are used to prevent decay of the body from the pelvic region upwards, and used to strengthen the entire system. Moolabandha called the master lock combines these, plus adds its own tightening of the pelvic region. The west has reinvented these as Kegel's exercises, as these have now popularly known.
Having a regular practice is more important than focusing on just a few asanas towards libido. It is understood that blood circulation in the uro-genital system needs to be facilitated to improve libido, or fertility.

Some contemporary books that help with this topic are Yoga for sex, by Vimla Lalvani. And Pink Yoga, by CP Sharma. The former lists poses that may be done to improve the whole system, as well as gives partnering poses,while the latter book discusses simpler poses/practices you may do on your own.

Interestingly the same practices which help fertility are also used to control sexual desires and develop dispassion and control lust. 

(The above is from a column I wrote a few years ago, on this topic)

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Gorakhnath:his legendary footprints are all over the country

Matsyendranath: guru to Gorakhnath (below)
Amongst the greatest Siddhars is Korrakar , who in the rest of India is venerated as the nath yogi Gorakhnath. His footprints are all over this vast country. Almost all regions and states claim him as their own. From the northwest, to the east, to the southern tip of India, nay even beyond, at Sri Lanka, his influence has been felt. Even today the school of yogis referred as Nath yogis are unusual warrior like yogis, who do not bow to known sets of political compliance. Since they do not identify with religious sects or castes, they reflect an India which is spiritual outside these confines.

Here is a powerful quote attributed to him and that explains the core of yoga philosophy even today.
The four varna (castes) are perceived to be located in the nature of the individual, i.e. Brahmana in sadacara (righteous conduct), Ksatriya in saurya (valor and courage), Vaisya in vyavasaya (business), and Sudra in seva (service). A yogin experiences all men and women of all races and castes within himself. Therefore he has no hatred for anybody. He has love for every being.
— Gorakhnath, Siddha Siddhanta Paddhati III.6-8

Many legends are attributed to him, as evidence of his yogic prowess, usually feats to show how he aided is disciples or devotees in difficult circumstances.  Many of these stories also reflect the fact that he was regarded as a great healer. 
His origins were very humble. Though there are different stories of his origin, all have a common detail: he was discovered as a baby left on a dung hill. And he was the direct disciple of the powerful yogi Matsyendranath, after whom the famous spinal twist pose in yoga is named. 

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The list of 18 Siddhas seems to be a matter of continuing debate, while some names, common in northern and western India also evoke debate. These are  Valmiki (Tamil name Vaanmegar) and Patanjali: there seems to be a school of thought which believes these were different from their namesakes in the north, while anther school believes to the contrary. But Gorakhnath, prominent   in this list,  (referred to in Southern treatises as Korrakar) is accepted to be the famous yogi whose imprint is felt even today in Nepal, Bengal and Gujarat. So also Agastiyar's contribution to the yogic philosophy and  its healing therapies is recorded as a shared legacy that binds the southern and northern halves of the Indian sub-continent. Dhanwantari, regarded as father of Ayurveda and medicine man for the gods, is also in this list.
Tamil historians also believe Siddhas were part of the Lemuria (in Tamil believed to be Kumari Kandam)  – the legendary landmass that linked Australia and Asia, inhabited by highly evolved spiritual people,  before it sunk and split gradually. But the history of Siddhas is extremely difficult to track. For one, the  language they used was also often obtuse, in yogic parlance called sandhya bhasa or sunya sambhashana(esoteric language), that deliberately hid the meaning of what was meant so the special powers conferred on a Siddha (called Siddhis) did not fall into the hands of unscrupulous people.  Again, the reason for the difficulty  in spooring Siddhas historically is part of the Siddha  legacy itself: the   sub-text running through any references to them is the still-common saying "Rishi mulam, nadhi mulam", writes Kandaswamy. Meaning, the source of a saint is as mysterious and untraceable as that of a river.

Though each yoga school may insist that their method is superior to the rest, the common purpose – of god-realisation – is the binding factor in all of them. In that the Siddhas have much in common with other yogic traditions in India. But the emphasis was on using the body, perfecting it as the ideal vessel that carried them to this destination. This vessel had to be perfect, non-decaying, youthful and absolutely strong  for that difficult task.  That explains the vast therapeutic branches that this type ofyoga spawned, including the anti-aging Kaya Kalpa. This also explains the mythical life-span attributed to the Siddhas, most of them, according to the legends that surround them, lived for thousands of years. And some of them are also revered as Chiranjeevis, those who never died and are still around to help their devotees transcend the turbulent ocean of samskaras (cycle of births and deaths). This includes the legendary Babaji, the guru of many recent masters.  The legend that surrounds his `sightings'  even today draws yoga devotees from around the world to brave the cold, snow-strapped slopes of Himalayas.  


Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Yogis who broke traditions: unusual yogis

The revival of interest in Siddha medicine, believed to be the oldest system of medicine in the world, is also unraveling the tradition of yoga of the Siddhas,   also referred to in Tamils as Cittars or Arivans, meaning the `ones who knew'.

Though there is currently a branch of yoga trademarked Siddha Yoga (devised by Swami Muktananda, disciple of the saint-yogi Swami Nityananda), the yoga of Siddhas I am referring to in this column is the generic term famous in the South, encompassing a vast lineage that includes intriguing yogi characters who link India with various continents(from Arabia, Sri Lanka to China) and whose science covered herbalism, metallurgy, toxicology, bhasma (use of metals as medicine), alchemy, anti-aging Kaya Kalpa treatments, Varmam (or Marmakalai which in turn had spawned the various therapies of acupressure, reflexology, zone therapy) and whose artistic influence spanned architecture, idol-making, exquisite  poetry.

As rebels who flouted the class confines of the day, the Siddhas emerged from various castes and professions: Pambatti-Siddhar's name, as per the meaning, indicates that he was a snake-charmer. Karuvaroor, the spiritual guru of one of India's most powerful kings, Raja Raja Chola, was  from the Thevar sect. There are references to gypsy Siddhas.  The famous Thanjavur temple's brilliant architecture is credited to him.  Tirumoolar was a cow-herd Machamuni, acknowledged to be the powerful Matysendranath yogi after whom the famous spinal twist is named, is referred to in the southern tradition as a fisherman.

They even gave themselves shocking names to indicate their rebelliousness against prevailing social prejudices: one called himself Punnakkicar (The cow-dung saint) and another called himself (Kaga-pucundar, or crow's excrement), records S. N. Kandaswamy in his book The Yoga of Siddha Avvai. They encouraged an agnostic philosophy that rebelled against casteism or any systemized prejudice  that sought to keep others from their birthright to mukti or liberation. They deliberately sought to shock people out of set notions, thus propelling them closer to god-realisation. The names of women Siddhas (Kudambai Cittar, Avvaiyar)   indicates that this egalitarianism embraced both genders. The list that Kandaswamy presents also includes Siddhas from various religious denominations: Sufi saints (Gunangudi Mastan), Viramamunivar (actually Constantine Joseph Beshchi of Italy), Yakkobu-cittar (originally Ramdadevar) who is said to have traveled to Arabia to influence and be influenced by mystic Muslims, Teraiyar (credited with a sort of neuro-surgery) is believed to be a Buddhist, while Bhoganathar is either a Chinese or a Tamil Siddha who traveled to China to assume the name of Bo-Yang. He is also said to have traveled to Rome, Jerusalem and Rome on his mystical mission.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Yoga has no rules: Siddhar yogis who followed their devotion

The problem today is that everybody is looking to fit things or people or ideas into slots. If it does not fit into a slot of their liking or which includes themselves, people immediately become mean and suspicious. Slot for eating my type of food, my type of clothes, my type of fitness, my type of guru, my type of yoga..

The fear of being alone is what makes all of us like the idea of being slotted. Instead of being one person, suddenly like an hair extension or penile extension or boob job with artificial props, you enlarge the idea of yourself. This explains the violence now currently around the world .. under whatever guise you see it.  But in yoga, you are communing directly with the idea of the divine. Therefore you may reject the idea of slots.

(This image is from the temple which records the story of this saint, as he sat in penance)
The siddhar yogis  were the most vociferous amongst those who refused to be slotted. I wrote an exciting column on these amazing yogis who were keen to use the idea of yoga to break the slots of caste, religion.

This week I plan to run the series on these yogis. Here is one story from these yoga greats(Agastyar was one of them, as well as Bodhidharma, founder of the Shaolin Kung Fu school in China)  from the south of Vindhyas.

This story on  Kaduveli Siddhar  is said to have been narrated by Indian saint Sri Ramana Maharishi to show how a true Jnani could never be judged by what he did publicly. Kaduveli Siddha had an affair with a temple dancer. People gossiped about this to the King who offered a reward for any proof of this. The couple had a baby and the opportunistic dancer wanted to collect the reward so she went to the king   herself and confessed to the affair. The king wanted proof. She did a public performance attended by Kaduveli. As an anklet came off, the Siddha indicated his proximity to her by fixing it back on her ankle.   As the crowd jeered, the Siddha said, "If I it is true that every moment of my life is spent in only god-consciousness then let this boulder split into two." The stone split into two, indicating that even though the Siddha was seen has having a passionate affair with a temple dancer, in truth his god-consciousness had never wavered for a single moment.  

Sage Saying:
"There are only two castes. The highborn are the good who help those in distress.  The lowborn are those who  never help," This quote from Avvaiyar, the Siddha who asked to be relieved of her youthful beauty so she could focus on God and was transformed to an old crone overnight.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Yoga for shyness: balancing poses

At least I can vouch for this: I was so shy as a kid, when people asked me my name, I will run away. I  have refused prestigious school activities, which I wished to participate, because of debilitating shyness. I would be become red, start sweating violently, and feel my tongue hit the roof of the mouth. I can say with confidence that I have dealt with that part of myself with a lot of awareness, thanks to yoga. And even as I started teaching yoga -- which requires u to stand in front of a bunch of people and continually go on talking:)  I started holding workshops. My first workshop had over 50 people in it, including former Miss India Mehr Castellino (at the HELP library) and suffice to say, it was a roaring success.

So yes, yoga works to get this sort of socially debilitating aspects of you also cleared. Most of this happens with balancing poses, standing, inversions or arm balances.

Here, more on the science of how this works, from a column I wrote a while ago:

There is a scientific basis for all this. The brain part called cerebellum (also referred to as the `little brain') is involved in maintaining our physical balance. Recently, it has been established the cerebellum is also involved with maintaining our social balance. It plays an active role in the expression of our social selves.

It was found that the cerebellum is in charge of several functions that we take for granted
  • It co-ordinates the flood of sensory data and interprets it.
  • After interpreting this continuous flow of information from what we see, hear and feel, it gives a holistic picture. When our cerebellum is out of sync, our interpretations may also be askew, leading to social problems.
  • It plays an important role in our ability to pay attention and focus on a particular task at hand.
  • It has a prominent say in our cognitive ability (or problem-solving).
  • Recent research shows that chemical imbalances in the cerebellum could well be linked to social problems we face. This could range from inability to maintain a meaningful conversation. Or inability to sustain a relationship.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Yoga of focus, for success

Yogic tale
This tale is from Yoga Vasishtha, where Rama's  mentor advises him to gain true strength unlike asuras Dama, Vyala, and Kata. In the inevitable battle between devas and asuras, the latter were winning, not just once but in every battle. Brahma offers devas this solution: he advises them to   keep attacking and withdrawing. This constant on-off ruse will make the asuras believe themselves to be invincible. This will create their downfall by strengthening the I-factor. Once this I-factor becomes strong, the asuras will start suffering a steady down-fall because this sort of success also generates deep fear (of failure), a compulsive and self-destructive obsession with superficial worldly pleasures which will dissipate their energies, which will drag their mental powers further down. They will become depressed, agitated, they will destroy themselves. To have true strength, advises Vasishtha, you have to constantly nip the obsessive I-factor, focusing on the work at hand instead of the false ego. Such pure focus will ensure success, while the sort of success bred by the ego is sure to collapse. The mythical devas and asuras, of course, stand for our own positive and negative selves, while the battle success being discussed is   related to any work we undertake.

Yoni mudra
(Womb lock)
This `energy lock' has other names, including shanmukhi mudra. It is simple to instruct but difficult to practice, requiring mental stamina and discipline.

Sit cross-legged. Eyes shut. Lift hands, elbows straight out. Plug ears with each thumb. Use other fingers to shut the other `gateways': place index finger gently on shut eyes, middle finger tips on nostrils – do not shut the nostrils, just place the fingers gently. Place ring finger and little finger on top of upper and lower nostrils respectively. Breathe naturally, hearing the subtle physical sounds that this complete lock provides.

Science speak: This is a powerfully involuting and introverting practice. Avoid if shy or depressed. It helps direct mental focus more keenly inwards, making your watch your inner talk more objectively and critically. It is also a spiritual practice, that prepares you for advanced nada yoga of sound. It is said to relax the facial nerves and muscles. It is therapeutic in anger management.

Wisdom from the ages: `The effects of action (for a yogi) are immediate or delayed (as he desires). By samayama (complete attention through focus, mediation and samadhi or merger), the yogi will gain foreknowledge of their final fruits.' From Patanjali's  Yoga Sutras.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Yoga for success: first destress!

Yoga is tailor-made for the harried, ambitious individuals since it shapes and prunes focus, improving implementation of ideas. It is a mind-training tool. And it cultivates the body to keep pace with the fast-paced needs of ambition. Yet, as you guessed it, these people, type-cast as Type A, are the most likely to shirk it, reserving yoga for their retirement.

I remember buying this book `Yoga secrets for business success' by Darshan Singh Khalsa . I remember my foolish disappointment, too,   on seeing that it had a host of yogic techniques to de-stress, meditate, controlling fear and anger instead of uncovering  the magical secrets for material success through yoga. Then, it sunk in as I read the book that success without the emotional strengths advocated in the book was rather empty. What was the point of material success if you spent your well-earned money trying to tackle the plethora of physical problems you had accumulated along the way to the bank – BP, heart ailments, obesity, joint and back pains. And imagine being nagged by your rivals' success, fears of failure, secret fears of being unable to cope and feeling like the proverbial Alice in wonderland who had to keep running just to remain in one place.

Yoga is (and was) not just a spiritual science but a tool for mind-control. In fact, Patanjali's Yoga Sutras focuses on just one asana called siddhasana(adept's pose), directing the entire treatise to tackle the mind so it can move ahead without distractions. Darshan Singh Khalsa,   in the book mentioned above, puts this perspective in a nutshell: "Yogis have long recognized that the best decision making takes place when the left and right hemispheres of the brain are balanced and synchronized. Since the left brain questions and the right brain accepts, an individual's analytical and creative thought processes are most effective when a state of balance in neutrality is achieved. Yoga and meditation are effective technology for clearing the clutter of the mind's incessant chatter to reach a state of inner quietude where intuition flows and the solutions to even the toughest problems can be discovered."

For real success we have often to break self-defeating habit patterns. Yoga helps this by creating self-awareness (as opposed to self-consciousness that other methods promote). That is why it is tough to do, especially by those who are over-worked because it calls for being aware of the path along which we are skidding, smelling the fragrance of success instead of just brewing it up. Dr Phil Nurenberger in his book `Freedom from stress' (published by the Himalayan Institute Press) writes: `Developing physical awareness is not only necessary in order to eliminate stress, it is often quite a lot of fun." Doing yoga helps workaholics have fun at work instead of just suffering work.. Stress is a physical response to mental response to external stimuli. For most of us this happens at our workplace. Dr Nurenberger also notes that most of us react with arousal or inhibition, becoming either aggressive or inhibited, both negative responses that long-term affect tissue repair and inadequate tissue repair. This also causes decreased capacity for overall functioning. All not what a workaholic intends, of course.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

A great example of one who used yoga to heal: Guruji B.K.S.Iyengar

It is part of yogic lore now, but the living legend B.K.S. Iyengar was, in his childhood, very sick. He was born weak, due his mother's illness while she was pregnant with him. Even in infancy and early childhood, he was attacked by the virulent tropical infections which left him pain-racked and weak. In fact, when he was sent to his relative, the equally legendary Krishnamacharya, to learn yoga he was often ridiculed for his puny size. Krishnamacharya was not keen on having Iyengar do the public demonstrations of yogic asanas because of Iyengar's frailty. Yet, through sheer determination and steadiness of practice, Iyengar attained superb skill in yoga.   Iyengar never fails to emphasizes just how he used yoga to reclaim his health.
He was written off as a young kid because he was very sickly -- his body was racked by malaria, typhoid and tuberculosis. But he lived to the ripe old age of 96.  And transformed the idea of health and your own ability to take charge of it. 

He says this, n this best-selling Yoga: the path to holistic health : "There are two types of immunity, natural and acquired. Yoga strengthens both, and regular practice of the recommended asanas can help counter the disorders that affect them."

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Acupressure points that tweak immunity in yoga

(Fish pose/matsyasana)

In yoga the chest-opening poses are the most effective immunity boosters. Intriguingly, these poses most people will "cheat"-- in the sense they will have flawed execution. It is important for the teacher to constantly check how these poses are executed because of the potential to slump at the chest.
Some people, not used to yogic stretches or who have weak breathing habits, may even feel dizzy when trying them in the first few weeks. So, in these cases they have to be phased and eased into the body, with props, if essential.

Interestingly, these poses not only work on the spot between the shoulder-blades, but also work on the chest region, impacting the thymus gland powerfully. Thymus gland produces the T-cells, our immune cells. By early adulthood, its functions begin to wobble if not activated, as is done, through yoga. As we have seen, even exercise (other than yoga) can put a heavy load on the immune cells. The liver steps in to take some of load off such toxic pile-up that occurs daily and routinely. Yogic twists, as wells as forward bends, work on the liver, massaging it and toning it back to youthful vigor so it complements the work of the thymus gland effectively.

Practices like the surya namaskar, or dynamic practices (called the flow or vinyasa or druta or dynamic variations) clean up our lymphatic system(lymph vessels, lymph nodes), which is also involved with immunity, through the production of lymphocytes, a type of immune cells and filtering of antigens. Poses which apply pressure   and resistance (such as the locust, all prone poses) also boost bone health. Bones becomes healthily dense  when muscles around them work-out powerfully, as happens with yogic poses. Then the bones, especially the long ones which are actually cell-producing factories, become more efficient at manufacturing immune cells such as B-cells, phagocytes.

The nascent science of psycho neuro-immunology tells us that negative mind-sets, such as depression, anxiety, fear, anger, are implicated in a weakened immunity. While modern medicine has just woken up to the inevitable connection between mind and body, our ancient yogis knew it all along. So, not surprisingly, all immune-boosting yogic poses and practices are also mood uplifting. Nothing is left to chance, but all care is taken to ensure that the health acquired through yoga is not superficial but a thorough one which seeps the entire personality.